Summer is still three months away, but it is time to think about sunshine. National Sunshine Week is March 11-17, and in Berkeley we have a chance to pass the strongest Sunshine law in the country. This ordinance would not govern the sun's rays, which light up our homes and illuminate our yards, but would instead mandate that sunshine must flow into our city government and ensure that our politicians and their employees cannot hide in the shadows.
In 1909, Florida was one of the first states to adopt an open meetings law, but it wasn't until the mid 1950s that most other states began to follow suit. In 1967, the Sunshine State tied its own state nickname to the cause through Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. Within ten years the U.S. Congress had passed its own Government in the Sunshine Act, and there was some form of open government law in every state.
But open meeting laws are only the first step, and most of these early laws allowed governments to violate them without any possibility of penalties. Without an enforceable mechanism built into these sunshine laws, the government is able to keep anything secret that it chooses and there is almost nothing citizens can do to intervene.
In a paper published through the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication, Punishment for Shade: An Analysis of Penalties and Remedies for Violations of Open Meetings Laws Across the Country, Adrianna C. Rodriguez, a graduate student, and Dr. Laurence B. Alexander, a Professor of Journalism, establish that Sunshine laws can only be effective if they cannot be ignored.
The move to bring sunshine to our local Berkeley government started around 2001. After five years — and a lot of reminders to our council of their supposed commitment to open government — they finally held a public workshop in 2006. As a result of that workshop the council called upon the League of Women Voters to organize a committee of citizens who would write a proposed sunshine law.
For the next three years an ad-hoc group of Berkeley residents, discussed, debated researched and drafted what would become the 2012 Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance. At times, the committee called upon city staff and the city council to help them find the best approaches to achieving a transparent government, but the city officials were unable to provide any significant assistance.
When the citizens’ committee decided its work was completed and — after many requests — allowed to present their proposed ordinance to the council, it was immediately clear that the city would not accept their proposed ordinance. The committee offered to work with the council to find an acceptable compromise, but this too was completely unsuccessful and the committee reluctantly decided their only hope for meaningful law was to go to the ballot box and ask the voters to stand up for Sunshine and open government, something the city council has refused to do.
After 11 years of effort, the issue will finally be decided by the voters of Berkeley when they step into the polls this November to elect the next president of the United States. Mayor Tom Bates has already started his campaign to defeat this measure and will likely tell the voters that they already have all the open government they need and should put their trust in the city council's weak and unenforceable Open Government Ordinance. But in a city where the chief of police doesn't think twice before sending an officer to a reporter's home in the middle of the night to demand a correction, it's clear that trust has not been earned.
We look forward to the chance to work together to bring sunshine to the people of Berkeley and we hope to educate the city about the importance of the 2012 Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance, and the need for reasonable enforcement.
To do this we need your help. Please go to our website www.berkeleysunshine.org, read more about these issues and support our efforts at creating a truly open and transparent Berkeley government.